Dana Nessel, Michigan’s brash attorney general, plows through Lansing

Democratic Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel won her seat campaigning on liberal ideals. Now that she’s in office, she’s executing on those promises in sometimes controversial political ways. Here, Nessel speaks at a Planned Parenthood event in Lansing in April, where she said she would not prosecute abortion crimes if Roe v Wade is overturned. (Bridge photo by Riley Beggin)

[This article has been updated to note that strategist TJ Bucholz's firm worked for Dana Nessel's Democratic opponent in 2018]

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel last read Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” as a senior at the University of Michigan. The book’s misogynist dystopia is now close to reality, she told a room of nodding, pink-clad women at a Planned Parenthood conference in Lansing on Tuesday.

If modern politics become more like the novel, she said, she’ll go down kicking and screaming.

“Quiet’s not really my thing.”

Since taking office in January, the Democrat, who first made a splash in 2017 by citing the benefits of electing an AG without a penis, has come out swinging in an effort to turn her liberal politics into policy. She’s systematically reversed the state’s legal posture on abortion, the environment and LGBTQ rights set by her conservative predecessor Bill Schuette; joined other states in challenging Trump administration policies; thrown shade at the lawmaking skills of state Republicans, and, for good measure, taken on the Catholic church.

At the Planned Parenthood event, Nessel listed several cases she’s joined protecting abortion rights at the federal and state level, and promised this: If Roe v Wade — the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court establishing a right to abortion — is overturned, “I will never prosecute a woman or her doctor for making the difficult decision to terminate a pregnancy.”

Political observers say such remarks underscore Nessel’s commitment as the state’s top lawyer to implementing progressive policies, decorum be damned. Though she lauds former Democratic Attorney General Frank Kelley, she eschews his generation’s carefully measured legal declarations; preferring the unapologetic partisan activism that is becoming the norm among many attorneys general, both Democratic and Republican, across the nation.    

“Dana Nessel isn’t for everybody, and that’s okay by her,” said TJ Bucholz, a Democratic strategist and president of Lansing-based Vanguard Public Affairs. “Not everyone likes her style. And it’s not that her style’s wrong, it’s just different. It’s different than any attorney general we’ve ever had.”

In an email to Bridge, Nessel characterizes her mission as not much different  from Kelley’s work decades ago: “My goal is to re-establish this office as the People's Attorney, aggressively protecting people’s rights, pocketbooks, health, welfare and safety,” she wrote.  

Nessel’s aggressive stance on a number of issues, including abortion, is also an example of the wide-ranging power state attorneys general have begun to leverage in recent decades to advance political priorities, experts say. Nessel’s rapid-fire changes may cause whiplash after 16 years of Republican control of the office, but experts note that state attorneys general of both parties have increasingly used their position for partisan advocacy.

Promises made

Nessel, a former prosecutor and defense attorney, campaigned on issues important to the Democratic party’s left wing such as shutting down the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac, fighting for LGBTQ and immigrant civil rights and legalizing recreational marijuana. She was vocal from the outset about reversing Schuette policies and fighting the Trump administration, displaying a brashness that endeared her to progressives.

She’s brought that same rhetorical candor into office, said Bucholz, whose firm represented Nessel's 2018 Democratic opponent, Pat Miles.

“Politics are partisan,” he said. “I think she is more partisan than the governor, let’s say. I think she’s willing to take on someone who has the polar opposite view than she does.”

At a cannabis industry event in Lansing in March, Nessel took a jab at Democratic rival Miles (“Whatever happened to that guy? No one cares”) and joked that a state Medical Marihuana Licensing Board member might want to seek a new job euthanizing puppies. On Twitter, she’s told Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and fellow Republicans to “pass better laws” if they don’t want them reversed, and called a conservative Detroit News columnist a “hate monger.”

Since taking office, Nessel has signed on to 27 federal cases or policy requests with mostly Democratic attorneys general to support left-leaning environmental, women’s health, immigration and education policy priorities and more. She’s released a legal opinion that deemed a Republican-passed plan to build a tunnel for Line 5 unconstitutional, and reached a legal settlement that requires any agency that contracts with the state to allow same-sex adoptions.  

“She’s taken a pretty aggressive posture in reversing what her predecessor did,” said Paul Nolette, a professor of political science at Marquette University who studies how state attorneys general influence policy.

Nessel created an elder abuse task force and auto insurance fraud unit, and units to investigate hate crimes and wrongful convictions, while eliminating 11 positions she described as "political appointments" by Schuette. But she has also continued three investigations started under Schuette into Michigan State University, the Catholic Church and the Flint water crisis.

“I am committed to be as action-oriented as I possibly can be on a number of fronts,” Nessel said. “I am working hard to restore the integrity of the office and commitment to the people that was epitomized by long-time Attorney General Frank Kelley.”

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel has signed on to 27 cases or policy requests since taking office. The following list includes descriptions written by the Attorney General's office:

List of Granted Requests to Sign on - As of 4-15-2019 by Riley Beggin on Scribd

She’s done exactly what she said she’d do, said Bucholz, the Democratic strategist, and she’s well-positioned to make significant change because unlike the governor, her work doesn’t rely on the Republican-led legislature.

“She’s going to come off as very progressive because she is,” he said. “And that’s the cool part of being attorney general. You can transform the office into what you want it to be.”

John Truscott, president of Lansing-based public relations firm Truscott Rossman and longtime spokesman for former GOP Gov. John Engler, said Nessel’s short tenure so far has “absolutely” proven her to be more activist than previous Michigan attorneys general.

“There are several high-profile (cases) that have led a lot of people to question the direction of the office,” Truscott said, adding that it’s still early in her term and also acknowledging there have been times when Nessel has collaborated with Republicans. Nessel joined with Republican leaders for instance on criminal justice reforms (an area of early bipartisan agreement in Lansing this term) such as civil asset forfeiture, and a review of the state’s jail and prison systems.

But Truscott contends Nessel crosses a line when she, for instance, vows to refuse to enforce future abortion laws. “She’s wandering too far into being a policy-maker and setting or changing policy,” he said. “Which is not her job.”

James Tierney, a former Maine Attorney General who writes about the power of state attorneys general, said that while Nessel has the ability and the right to influence policy as attorney general, her advocacy doesn’t necessarily change the bulk of the office’s work defending the state in the legal system.

“Naturally there’s going to be a difference (in policy choices between attorneys general), it’s nothing surprising. Elections have consequences,” Tierney said. “The vast majority of the office goes to work every day and doesn’t pay attention to it, nor should they.”

Multiple experts said Nessel and her predecessor Schuette do share some qualities. Both are comfortable using the power of the office to confront divisive topics and are vocal about the issues they care about, said Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan and director of the school’s Center for Local, State and Urban Policy.

Among other positions, Schuette defended the state’s ban on gay marriage, fought transgender bathroom standards and joined nine suits opposing the Affordable Care Act (bucking a fellow Republican, then-Gov. Rick Snyder, who supported Medicaid expansion in Michigan.)

Nessel said she differs from Schuette in that she is as “personally involved in the decision-making process in our department as much as possible.”

“I understand this is a culture change in our department because my predecessor chose not to take an active role in most cases,” she said.

Schuette could not be reached for comment.

Weaponizing the resources of the state attorney general’s office is “consistent with the pattern we’re increasingly seeing in multiple states,” Rabe said. For example, Republican attorneys general successfully fought the Obama-era Clean Power Plan through lawsuits and Democratic lawmakers in California added millions of dollars to the attorney general’s budget for suing the Trump administration.

Rabe added that Nessel’s comfortability with Twitter tiffs is also not surprising: “The attorney general is out front on a lot of issues, is visible … It’s part of the modern era of attorney general.”

Attorneys general find their voice

The era of activist attorneys generals is considered to have taken hold in the late 1990s, when nearly every state AG banded together to win a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit against the country’s major tobacco companies.

That suit, Nolette said, was the “big bang” of contemporary attorney general activism.

“Ever since that time, it has seemed as if every year they’re trying newer and newer strategies to get involved in national politics,” Nolette said.

In the early 2000s, the number of suits brought against the federal government by state attorneys general began rising. Bipartisan suits were swapped for partisan ones brought by coalitions of attorneys general from the same party. Now, it’s more commonplace than ever — state attorneys general have brought more suits against the Trump administration in his first two years in office than they did for all eight years of the Obama presidency.

Attorneys general’s suits were once limited to mostly environmental or consumer issues, Nolette said. Indeed, Frank Kelley, the nation’s longest-serving state attorney general before retiring in 1999, built his legacy on a keen devotion to guarding consumer rights. Today, state attorneys general are as likely to dive into every area of policy in their roles as “lawyers for the people.”

While the attorney general’s role is to represent the state in legal matters, the law is flexible enough that it’s up to individual attorneys general to decide how they see the office, Nolette said. “You can really define your role in the way you think is appropriate.”

As Nessel wrapped up her speech before the audience of Planned Parenthood devotées Tuesday, she reflected on the suits she’s joined in just over three months and pledged to keep pushing for abortion rights — even, she said mournfully, if Roe v Wade is overturned.

The fight, she said, must reach other branches of government: Ideal policy will come from electing Democrats to the state House and Senate, U.S. Senate, presidency and through those victories, the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This could not be a more important and serious time in the history of our nation and the history of our state,” Nessel said. “Let’s resist. Let’s continue to fight back together.”

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Fri, 04/19/2019 - 9:10am

you act like these are good things when in reality they make our state worse

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 9:51am

Exactly, hopefully her term in office will be short.

Our Business
Fri, 04/19/2019 - 1:17pm

It will not be as Dana will be our next Governor, after Gretchen. Get use to her sticking around for awhile ....to move to another state. Your choice.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 2:51pm

Worse for who ?? Ha Ha

Sat, 04/27/2019 - 6:19am

Tell her to watch Unplanned and she the horrific crimes against babies and hopefully she will change her mind

Doug L
Fri, 04/19/2019 - 9:12am

An attorney general who is interested more in pushing her personal opinions than in enforcing the law. And she refuses to enforce laws if she does not agree with them. Is it too early to impeach our attorney general?

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 9:28am

Doug --- Let's DO IT! I'll be the first to sign that petition!

Le Roy G. Barnett
Fri, 04/19/2019 - 10:26am

A "Red Flag" bill is poised to pass in Colorado. This would allow judges to order the confiscation of guns belonging to individuals who pose a risk to themselves or others. A number of sheriffs in the state have said they will not enforce the measure if it becomes law. I have checked the internet to see if anyone named Doug L. has protested the vows by some peace officers to ignore this potential statute, but so far nothing shows up online. I'm confident, however, that when he weighs in on this issue, he will call for the impeachment of these badge-wearing scofflaws. After all, consistency is said to be a virtue.

John Q. Public
Fri, 04/19/2019 - 10:54am

R.W. Emerson had some thoughts on consistency a few year back.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 10:28am

An AG who selectively enforces laws is very bad. Some groups will think it's great......until she comes for them. The rule of law is imperative.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 9:24am

So, step back for a moment and look at our world today from a distance . . .
We have politicians paid by your and my tax dollars fighting for the rights of everybody in the world but the indefensible babies still in the womb, or in some cases, those just emerging from the womb! What is wrong with that picture? Their reasoning becomes clear when you consider that those lives are not important because they cannot vote, and their existence is considered inconvenient! If they could have voted, do you think any would have voted Democratic to their own demise?
America will be held accountable some day for this scourge on mankind!!!

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 10:36am

Your ignorance is astounding! At no time in the history of the human race has a fetus had rights! Nowhere, no time. In addition, a fetus is NOT a baby. If you knew anything about biology and neuroscience, you would know that human consciousness (or that part of the brain that develops consciousness) does not develop until six months in the womb. Now, if your religious or other belief leads you to deny the facts of science, fine. Don't have an abortion. But do NOT take away the rights of others based on history, science and fact. Bravo Dana Nessell.

Nick Ciaramitaro
Fri, 04/19/2019 - 12:02pm

If you are going to try to distinguish science from religion at least be accurate. Any high school biology book will tell you that human life begins at conception. The law has determined that human rights apply only to "persons" which the courts have determined to mean those who have been "born alive", i.e. have taken a breath. This is a legal distinction, not a scientific one. The history of the world is replete with cases in which society has justified denying rights to human beings by defining them as something else. The fact that ALL human beings should have rights does not diminish the rights of other human beings - it enhances them. We need to have a discussion about when the legitimate rights of a woman outweigh the legitimate rights of an unborn child and vice versa. But DON'T use false science or even history to justify your position. A fetus is a living human being and so is a woman.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 2:40pm

Quite correct. Thank you, Nick.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 2:44pm

You will definitely not find that in any respectable biology textbook, you reactionary dunce

Sat, 04/20/2019 - 1:16pm

Bravo! As usual Bones claims inteligence but his arguements only ever consit of name calling.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 12:11pm

Ignorance is running rampart! If a fetus has no rights, and never has, please explain to me how prosecutors can justify two counts of murder when a pregnant woman is murdered, causing the death of her unborn baby. This happens frequently, and the hypocrisy astounds me. How is the fetus a person when it is murdered by a woman's abusive partner, or a drunk driver, but suddenly has no rights when it is aborted? Did Dana Nessel, as a prosecutor, ever bring murder charges against someone who caused the death of an in-utero child? Would she have, if she believes that a fetus has no rights? Also, if human consciousness does not develop until 6 months in the womb, how should we treat premature babies born at 24 weeks, or earlier? Do we assume that they should not be saved if they have no consciousness? Does an advanced Alzheimer's patient who is unaware of their surroundings, fails to recognize their loved ones and seem to have no memory, fall into that same category, and if so, do you advocate euthanasia for such people?

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 12:24pm

Well --- I'm smart enough to know that I am not GOD! GOD is to only one that knows when life begins! Everything else is man's opinion of what GOD created! Even yours . . . unless of course, you are GOD or you were there! And, in all other areas of our society we believe that all life has rights, including that "thing" with a beating heart living inside the expecting mother, even if you call it a fetus to make you feel better. If you think I am dumb for believing that, then so be it! I will not be held responsible for your opinion, YOU will some day!

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 12:54pm

George - Your ignorance is astounding! I can see you saying prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, "At no time in history of the human race has a black slave had rights! " And if you knew anything about science you would know that a fetus is indeed a baby. A human being develops through different stages. Look up the definition: fetus = unborn baby. Religion does not tell us this, scientific facts do. SHAME on Dana Nessell.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 11:17pm

George. Your psychopathy is sad and disturbing. A fetus is a medical term for a baby still in it's mothers womb. That baby is a distinct living being from it's mother. It carries only half its genes from her the other half coming from the father of course. To consciously decide to end (kill) that babys (fetus) life is murder pure and simple. Nowhere, at no time in the history of the human race has murder been not only legal but encouraged and vigorously promoted. Except now, in our supposedly progressive and enlightened era. If you don't want to have a baby there are MANY choices and methods to prevent it. But murder should not be an option.

Sun, 04/21/2019 - 9:54am

Must have gotten his science from CNN or the Russians,,,same as Obama

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 9:38am

I would like it if Bridge would distinguish between fighting for legal immigrant rights, and fighting for illegal, or in PC terms undocumented, immigrant rights. I she is wasting taxpayer money on cases supporting illegals, then she should be, in the words of one of her political cronies, “impeach the M-Fer”.

Robert Ross
Fri, 04/19/2019 - 9:51am

Your attorney general is an anti-Catholic bigot.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 10:30am


Le Roy G. Barnett
Fri, 04/19/2019 - 11:33am

As the article notes, Nessel is continuing an investigation of wrongdoing by Catholic clergy that was initiated by the previous AG, Bill Schuette. Was her predecessor also an anti-Catholic bigot? Just wondering.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 9:53am

As the Attorney General, how can you justify not enforcing laws just because you don't personally like them?

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 10:42am

Do you mean like Schuette did when he opposed medical marijuana?

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 12:56pm

That's not the same thing as opposing laws in place.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 10:56am

Not only that, Lynn . . . Why are we paying our AG to join fights in other parts of the country for political causes? It is a waste and misuse of our tax dollars that fund her paycheck! The people of Michigan did not elect an AG to arbitrarily pick and choose national issues that fit her personal agenda. If a law is bad, then those in power should change it . . . not selectively enforce it. We must restore the respect for law and authority in this country. Work to make it better where we must; but we as individuals cannot choose which laws are good and which are bad, and then decide ourselves which to obey. To do so results in chaos. People every day get jailed or even killed for flaunting authority. Our AG must set an example of that!

John Q. Public
Fri, 04/19/2019 - 10:57am

I'll give Nessel credit--she's affirming my feeling of self-satisfaction almost daily. You see, I voted for Pat Miles.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 11:30am

I don't like her style, but I do support her positions. And, BTW, if a fetus is a legal person, should we prosecute pregnant women for smoking or eating French fries? What if the baby has no forebrain? Should she be forced to carry to delivery and watch the baby die ? These are real life situations that confront doctors and nurses every day in obstetrical units across the country. If rabid abortion opponents (no circumstances ever) could spend a few days observing neglect and abuse cases, they might realize how hypocritical their position is.....but I doubt it.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 2:49pm

The American Freedom Law Center is a hate group. Very cool and very unsurprising of you to be parroting their trash...

Kevin Grand
Fri, 04/19/2019 - 7:59pm

According to what reputable source?

Tue, 05/12/2020 - 9:59am

Bones probably drinks the SPLC kool-aid.
SPLC is one of the biggest hate groups in this country.
Amazing to see a hate group like the SPLC hide behind the guise of "identifying hate groups"
I would say that it takes one to know one but half of their supposed hate groups are simply not hate groups at all.
Fascism at its best.

marcia curran
Fri, 04/19/2019 - 12:21pm

Just wondering if the commenters and writers ever have used the terms "brash" and "decorum" in connection with male subjects.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 1:14pm

will she stop the illegal sell of the Michigan state fair grounds?????

Gary L.
Fri, 04/19/2019 - 1:32pm

Justice is served...

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 2:47pm

Not her cash, why should she care?

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 3:31pm

And why isn’t a man referred to as brash. Or do we just refer to them as jerks?

John Newmyer
Fri, 04/19/2019 - 3:58pm

Abortion doesn't just end a pregnancy, it ends a life. Abortion is nothing more than MURDER BY MOTHER!!! Democrats are nothing more than EVIL because they believe that illegal aliens are more important than citizens and convicted criminals are more important than innocent unborns. They aren't smart enough to realize that newborns grow up to pay taxes which would increase governments' coffers without raising taxes and would increase Social Security coffers as well. Abortion is a bigger scourge on America than slavery ever thought of being. Slaves were able to be freed (no thanks to democrats) while aborted unborns are just murdered.

Fri, 04/19/2019 - 4:00pm

It’s not politically correct to disagree with a female democrat.....so i’ll just hope this one eventually learns what her job is, and say no more.

Sat, 04/20/2019 - 9:16am

I have gotten to the place of wondering who runs the state, Nessel or Whitmer?

Just a Guy
Sat, 04/20/2019 - 9:33am

Nessel’s early activism is a direct result of the disastrous positions and actions of her predecessor. “On Duty Schuette” ran for governor his entire career and shaped and formed his policy positions (not necessarily representing the needs of the people of this state), to fit his future campaign platform. (BTW, I’m a semi-Republican).

When the AG took office, she had a shelf full of high-profile, divisive issues to pick from - and she picked them all, made a splash and has solidified an activist base of supporters. Good for her. I hope she remembers that she represents ALL of the people in this state, and continues to try to find bi-partisan common ground where possible.

Perhaps once the novelty of winning wears off, she can dial back the rhetorical flourishes and political jabs a bit.

Lansing needs leaders, adults, and officials that don’t look for the next tweet, sound bite, or clap back to show they have the ability to govern with the best interests of their constituents.

A tall order perhaps, but I’m trying to be optimistic.

Sun, 04/21/2019 - 8:24am

I take offense at the characterization "brash," which conveys a reckless abandon, arrogance and utter disregard for consequences. Dana Nessel is a tough, principled advocate for human rights, dignity and justice, about the furthest thing from arrogant or reckless. In this case, I aver that the generally competent journalists at Bridge have allowed the peculiar misogyny directed at powerful women to bias their reporting — ironic given that it's not unfair to criticize the article for betraying a pro-Nesel bias. (Difficult to avoid, given the natural comparison to the morally bankrupt Schuette.)

Martin Scypinski
Sun, 04/21/2019 - 10:56am

This woman lost my respect with her horrible comment on trust due to her lack of a penis! Those that think this type of morality is correct should be ashamed.

Gloria Woods
Sun, 04/21/2019 - 11:21am

AG Nessel ran with an Action Plan and voters supported her and her plan. She still has our support!

Mon, 04/22/2019 - 9:45am

Bridge-you are not nonpartisan. As each new article comes out, your true colors show up more and more.

Thu, 04/25/2019 - 3:52pm

Instead of "brashness" I say "strong unflinching" Dana is a pillar of strength. She is bold. She is a positive for Michigan.